Cascade LNAs and Filters for Radioastronomy with an SDR

It may not be the radio station with all the hits and the best afternoon drive show, but 1420.4058 MHz is the most popular frequency in the universe. That’s the electromagnetic spectral line of hydrogen, and it’s the always on the air. But studying the H-line is a non-trivial task unless you know how to cascade low-noise amplifiers and filters to use an SDR for radio astronomy.

Because the universe is mostly made of hydrogen, H-line emissions are abundant, and their distribution can tell us a lot about the structure of galaxies. The 21-cm emission line is so characteristic and so prevalent that we used it as a unit of measurement on the plaques aboard the Pioneer probes as well as in the instructions for playing back the Voyager recordings. But listening in on 21-cm here on Earth requires a special setup, which [Adam (9A4QV)] describes in a detailed paper on the subject (PDF). [Adam] analyzes multiple configurations of LNAs and filters, both of which he sells, to determine the optimum front-end for 21-cm work. His analysis is a good primer on LNAs and explains why the front-end gear needs to be as close to the antenna as possible. Using his LNAs and filters and an SDR dongle, a reasonable 21-cm rig can be had for about $200 or so, less the antenna. He promises a follow-up paper on homebrew 21-cm antennas; we’ll be looking forward to that.

Not keen on the music of the spheres and prefer to listen to our own spacecraft instead? Then read up on the Deep Space Network and how you can snoop in.

Serious DX: The Deep Space Network

Humanity has been a spacefaring species for barely sixty years now. In that brief time, we’ve fairly mastered the business of putting objects into orbit around the Earth, and done so with such gusto that a cloud of both useful and useless objects now surrounds us. Communicating with satellites in Earth orbit is almost trivial; your phone is probably listening to at least half a dozen geosynchronous GPS birds right now, and any ham radio operator can chat with the astronauts aboard the ISS with nothing more that a $30 handy-talkie and a homemade antenna.

But once our spacecraft get much beyond geosynchronous orbit, communications get a little dicier. The inverse square law and the limited power budget available to most interplanetary craft exact a toll on how much RF energy can be sent back home. And yet the science of these missions demands a reliable connection with enough bandwidth to both control the spacecraft and to retrieve its precious cargo of data. That requires a powerful radio network with some mighty big ears, but as we’ll see, NASA isn’t the only one listening to what’s happening out in deep space. Continue reading “Serious DX: The Deep Space Network”

Horns Across America: The AT&T Long Lines Network

A bewildering amount of engineering was thrown at the various challenges presented to the United States by the end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War. From the Interstate Highway System to the population shift from cities to suburbs, infrastructure of all types was being constructed at a rapid pace, fueled by reasonable assessments of extant and future threats seasoned with a dash of paranoia, and funded by bulging federal coffers due to post-war prosperity and booming populations. No project seemed too big, and each pushed the bleeding edge of technology at the time.

Some of these critical infrastructure projects have gone the way of the dodo, supplanted by newer technologies that rendered them obsolete. Relics of these projects still dot the American landscape today, and are easy to find if you know where to look. One that always fascinated me was the network of microwave radio relay stations that once stitched the country together. From mountaintop to mountaintop, they stood silent and largely unattended, but they once buzzed with the business of a nation. Here’s how they came to be, and how they eventually made themselves relics.

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Using Nanotubes to Strengthen 3D Prints

3D printing has brought the production of plastic parts to the desktops and workshops of makers the world over, primarily through the use of FDM technology. The problem this method is that when squirting layers of hot plastic out to create a part, the subsequent vertical layers don’t adhere particularly well to each other, leading to poor strength and delamination problems. However, carbon nanotubes may hold some promise in solving this issue.

A useful property of carbon nanotubes is that they can be heated with microwave energy. Taking advantage of this, researchers coated PLA filament in a polymer film containing carbon nanotubes. As the layers of the print are laid down, the nanotubes are primarily located at the interface between the vertical layers. By using microwaves to heat the nanotubes, this allows the print to be locally heated at the interface between layers, essentially welding the layers together. As far as results are concerned, the team reports an impressive 275% improvement in fracture strength over traditionally printed parts.

The research paper is freely available, which we always like to see. There’s other methods to improve your print strength, too – you could always try annealing your printed parts.

[Thanks 𐂀[d] 𐂅 for the tip]

Unlikely Cascade of Failures Leads to Microwave’s Demise

Surely a blown light bulb can’t kill a microwave oven, right? You might not expect it to, but that was indeed the root cause of a problem that [mikeselecticstuff] recently investigated; the cascade of failures is instructive to say the least.

While the microwave that made its way to [mike]’s bench wasn’t exactly engineered to fail, it surely was not designed to succeed. We won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say that his hopes for a quick repair after the owner reported a bang before it died were dashed by an arc across the interior light bulb that put a pulse of mains voltage in places it didn’t belong. That the cascade of failures killed the appliance is a testament to how designing to a price point limits how thoroughly devices can be tested before production runs in the millions are stuffed into containers for trips to overseas markets.

Even though [mike] made his best effort to adhere to the Repair Manifesto, the end result was a scrapped microwave. It wasn’t a total loss given the interesting parts inside, but a disappointment nonetheless unless it forces us to keep in mind edge-case failure modes in our designs.

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Measuring Gait Speed Passively to Diagnose Diseases

You may not realize it, but how fast a person walks is an important indicator of overall health. We all instinctively know that we lag noticeably when a cold or the flu hits, but monitoring gait speed can help diagnose a plethora of chronic diseases and conditions. Wearables like Fitbit would be one way to monitor gait speed, but the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT thinks there’s a better way:  a wireless appliance that measures gait speed passively.

CSAIL’s sensor, dubbed WiTrack (PDF), is a wall-mounted plaque that could be easily concealed as a picture or mirror. It sends out low-power RF signals between about 5- and 7-GHz to perform 3D motion tracking in real time. The WiTrack sensor has a resolution of about 8 cm at those frequencies. With their WiGait algorithms (PDF), the CSAIL team led by [Chen-Yu Hsu] is able to measure not only overall walking speed, but also stride length. That turns out to be critical to predicting the onset of such diseases as Parkinson’s, which has a very characteristic shuffling gait in the early phase of the disease. Mobility impairments from other diseases, like ALS and multiple sclerosis, could also be identified.

WiTrack builds on [Hsu]’s previous work with through-wall RF tracking. It’s nice to see a novel technique coming closer to a useful product, and we’ll be watching to see where this one goes.

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$2700 eBay Bet Pays off for this 14 GHz Spectrum Analyzer Repair

The eBay addiction starts small. One night you’re buying $3 buck-boost converters and cheap Chinese USB power packs. The next thing you know you’re spending thousands on dead instruments with no documentation. You’ve got the skills though, and if your bet that you can diagnose and repair a 14 GHz real-time spectrum analyzer is right, you’ll be putting a snazzy instrument on the bench for a fraction of the original $50,000 it cost.

Make some popcorn and get cozy before settling in to watch [Shahriar]’s video below, because it clocks in at just over an hour. But it’s pretty entertaining, and just seeing how Tektronix built the RSA 6114A spectrum analyzer is worth the time. Things are different when you’re piping microwave signals around the chassis of a beast such a this, the interior of which is densely packed with pluggable modules. Tek factory service would no doubt perform a simple module swap to get this machine running again, but [Shahriar] wasn’t having any of that on his $2,700 eBay find. After isolating the problem to the local-oscillator generator module, [Shahriar] takes us on a tour of where the signals go and what they do. We won’t reveal the eventual culprit, but suffice it to say that after a little SMD rework, [Shahriar] has a very fancy new instrument for the shop.

If this repair gives you the itch to get working on microwave circuits, maybe it’s time to build that backyard synthetic aperture radar set you’ve always wanted.

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